Conversations around the death of Queen Elizabeth II have not all had a tone of celebratory remembrance. Many are mourning the death of Britain’s longest reigning monarch after 70 years of service as both queen and head of the Church of England. But others are responding in a completely different way with tweets like:
I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating. @ujuanya
Dr. Anya is specifically talking about the British conquest of her home country, Nigeria. In the late 19th century, thousands of Nigerians were arrested, displaced, or killed by British colonizers.
There are many other countries and people groups who have voiced similar grievances with the British monarchy. Arguments center on whether or not Queen Elizabeth II is at fault for the horrendous acts of British imperialism, or if it is the responsibility of an institution that predated her. Nevertheless, there is disagreement and friction about how Queen Elizabeth II should be remembered.
A similar question is often raised among the Christian community. There are many notable Christians who have long been seen as pillars of the faith. And yet, the skeletons in their closets are egregious.
For example, Martin Luther is celebrated and honored for his great contributions to the Christian faith. He is considered the father of Protestantism. Entire courses in seminary are dedicated to studying the work of Luther and the reformation he brought forth in the church. He was a key player in liberating the church from religious control. Luther is the one who preached that you are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This was revolutionary during a time when the church was selling indulgences.
Nevertheless, for as much good as he did for the church, Luther also had a dark side that we simply can’t ignore. For instance, in 1543, Luther wrote a treatise called On The Jews and Their Lies, a horribly anti-semitic document full of hatred for Jewish people.
In the treatise, Luther wrote, “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.”
Copies of On The Jews and Their Lies continue to be printed today as pamphlets by neo-Nazi and anti-semitic groups. The effects of Martin Luther’s writings spread far and wide.
Another great reformer, John Calvin, is likewise deeply admired in the Christian faith. He is most known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion. His understanding of total depravity, divine election, and sovereign grace are still fundamental to many Protestant traditions today.
But a lesser known aspect of John Calvin’s life is his efforts and legacy of burning heretics at the stake. There are specific records of Calvin’s involvement in the capture and burning of physician Michael Servetus.
The list of notable Christians in church history who have alarmingly dark sides is long. For example, John Newton is celebrated for his widely-known hymn “Amazing Grace,” but was also a wealthy slave trader even after his conversion. In more recent times, late apologist Ravi Zacharias, who was world renowned for his evangelistic efforts, used ministry funds to fuel ongoing sexual abuse against several women.
So how should we remember notable Christians who made incredible contributions to the faith but have arguably inflicted an equal amount of harm and abuse on others? Should we remove their names from the list of Christians who’ve gone before us that we honor and admire altogether? What ought their place to be in the stories we tell ourselves and the ideals we aspire to?
Until more recently, the dark sides of notable Christians have been hidden or brushed aside. I’ve read several books and articles about Martin Luther and John Calvin, and not many of them shared about their more egregious acts. The books were filled with praise and admiration for the theological contributions of these men that have forever shaped the way Protestant Christians view their faith. Yet, we have turned a blind eye to their horrific sin.
Great harm is done when the sinful acts of men are not acknowledged, talked about, and dealt with. It’s almost as if the great works of these men have outshined their sinful acts. In many ways, they have been placed on mantels and idolized with no regard to the ways they have abused others.
I’d be hard pressed to suggest we should throw the baby out with the bath water, but sometimes that seems more pure than what we’ve done with their sin so far.
For the sake of the dignity of those they’ve abused and hurt, we must speak about the sins of these men. God has clearly used these men in spite of their great flaws, but that is not a reason to disregard their sins against humanity. We must continue to hold hand-in-hand the great contributions of those who’ve gone before us and equally their offenses to mankind.
As hard as it is to talk about the sin of someone who has impacted our faith for the good, we have to be open about their faults. There is a weight to their sin—very real consequences to the words they have written and the actions they have taken. The conversation is always far more nuanced and delicate than we’d like it to be.
Maybe acknowledging the sin of notable Christians means updating writings reflecting on them to include these dark aspects of their lives, actually giving a true and full picture of who they were. It might also mean their names are no longer spotlighted or seen as the marker of a ministry or denomination. There are many ways we can choose to acknowledge and accept the good work Jesus has done through these men without celebrating their sin. The best way to arrive at what that actually looks like is to start with not shying away from acknowledging and dealing with their sin.
Keeping Notable Christians in Their Rightful Place
It should be no surprise to us that elevating any person whom we respect to a certain level will inevitably lead to great disappointment. We know that Jesus was the only perfect man, but we still lift up the names of other men in a way they should never be.
Anyone in a place of leadership and influence over others is accountable. To use the excuse that “nobody’s perfect” as a way of minimizing the sin of a leader of influence is damaging. It takes away from the seriousness of their sin and the harm their actions have done.
This is often a response by people who have placed a particular leader or influencer on a pedestal. It pains us too much to think the person we admire has done wrong. But this is the reality of all humanity.
The greatest Christian men who have gone before us, who have without a doubt made great impact on Christianity as a whole, must be kept in their rightful place. They are not idols. We make them into idols when we don’t want to acknowledge or deal with the weighty sin in their lives. We should be more concerned with amplifying the God who used them in spite of their sin, rather than them as broken and fallen humans.
Our desire to admire people of influence is undeniable. Therefore, we must always be aware of our tendency to put them in the place of God, as someone who can do no wrong. Jesus is the only one who never sinned. Everyone else, no matter how great their influence, must remain in their rightful place.